Outside, the wind beat relentlessly against the stone walls of the Stahldritten fortress, whipping the sleet and snow into a frenzy that howled beyond the warmth of the Great Mage’s chambers, unable to reach them. The storm sounded infuriated, but kept at bay; besides, it was the last thing on their minds.
“It’s been three days since you began searches,” Latya stated, searching for clarification in the faces of the three councilmembers across the long table from her. Her own advisor and betrothed, occupied her left and right respectively, providing a united front as they resumed their meeting with the High Council representatives.
“Yes,” Flugel Luftzweiten confirmed, and Latya’s eyes returned to the certified document she held in her hand, surveying the information inscribed there. “We began unofficial searches two nights ago; tonight will be the third.”
“And your intended target was the individual from the projections?”
“The directive of the contingent was to seek out and expose the Iron Faithful,” Emmerich responded clearly, his voice unwavering. “Upon their discovery, they were to be arrested and brought to the Ether Realm, along with their captive Klauen Stahldritten.”
“My brother,” Latya pointed out without glancing up from the document. Emmerich and Flugel exchanged a look that she missed.
“Yes, sage,” Flugel agreed. “We have since scouted most of the individual realms, but have returned no useful information.”
“Since when does the High Council engage in guerrilla warfare?” Latya asked, her steel gaze piercing. She looked remarkably like her older sister, but Flugel tried to shake the similarity from her mind.
“Since the Iron Faithful pose a significant threat to the safety of the Six Realms,” Flugel answered evenly, not backing down from her conviction. “That has always been the High Council’s directive – to protect the Realms, from both within and out.”
Latya nodded understandingly, accommodating in a way her sister could never be. The atmosphere relaxed around them, palpable in the room. “What do you ask of the Stahl Realm?”
“We request that you assign a provision of the Stahl Army to assisting the United Forces in its search for the Iron Faithful.”
At her side, Kohle Feuervierte perked up, his dark eyes touched with concern and confusion. “Have you approached any other Realms?”
“No, not as of yet,” Emmerich responded.
“Why not?” Haren Klinge barked, his voice gravelly and coarse.
“Because no other realm has a standing army,” Behende snapped, drawing all of the speakers’ attentions to him.
“What Behende means,” Flugel interjected, trying to diffuse the terse situation, “is that the Stahl Realm is the only realm that retained its army; all others were annexed into the United Forces. We have put all of their manpower to use, but we’re seeking your aid now.”
Latya’s gaze hadn’t lifted from Behende, where he sat to Flugel and Emmerich’s left. “Is something the matter?” she asked, and at the Wasserborn’s confused expression, elaborated, “You seem stressed; is there something more to this that you’re not informing us of?”
“It’s not relevant–” Flugel interjected, but Behende overrode her.
“My little brother was kidnapped by the Iron Faithful two days ago,” Behende explained harshly, his tone strained with trepidation and ferocity. “We haven’t received word from him since. We have no idea of his location, or what use he is to the Iron Faithful. We don’t know why they would even want him–”
“Is he of any use as leverage?” Latya asked softly, flooring Behende into stunned silence.
“No,” Emmerich replied quietly, gaze downcast. “Not unless they’re launching a personal attack on the Flusswelle family. They haven’t made any move against any other councilmembers’ families. Lache Flusswelle and Klauen Stahldritten are the only factors here that we’re aware of.”
Latya’s brow creased with every word, but she maintain her calm, addressing him clearly and evenly. “The High Council doesn’t believe this is a personally motivated attack against them,” she stated, and Emmerich nodded. “You’re right to think so; it doesn’t bear any hallmarks of traditional motivated attacks. So this isn’t a personal vendetta against either of our families.”
“Why do they need him as leverage then?” Behende bit out, clearly distraught. His gaze swam, brimming with tears that he desperately tried to shove down.
“Perhaps they don’t want him as leverage,” Latya mused aloud, her gaze drawing conclusions from the air before her. “Perhaps they have a use for him?”
Behende seemed incredulous, and even Flugel’s composure broke, creasing forming in her knitted brow. “A use for him?” she repeated.
“He may have information that’s useful to them,” Latya prompted, shrugging as she lowered the documents back to the table, her knuckles rapping on the coarse surface. “Do you share information relevant to the High Council with him, which would be useful to the Iron Faithful? Or have anything to suggest as much?”
Behende shook his head fiercely. “No, no, I never talk about High Councils matters with my family. I haven’t even seen them since before Heike recruited me. I’ve been in Ether since her rise.”
“Does he have any specific knowledge? Magery? Skills that they may be able to utilise, to use to their advantage?” Latya inquired, but Behende’s head didn’t cease in its dissent.
“He’s just an eighteen-year-old kid,” Behende said, pleasing with her to understand. “He’s of no use to them. I don’t know why they would take him. I– I don’t–”
Flugel wrapped a comforting arm around the Wasserborn’s shoulder as he braced his head in his hands, face obscured as the Luftzweiten stroked his arm soothingly. “Behende, it’s alright. We’re going to find him. That’s why we came here – to get help.”
Latya had been watching them with concern, but now she straightened in her chair, pushing the stack of documents across the table towards where the silent High Council representatives were huddled. Their gazes rose from the parchment to her impassive expression as she rose to her height. “I will appoint a sergeant and forty-five men to assist the United Forces in their search of the Stahl Realm, but not further. The Stahl Realm’s diplomacy is tentative; I won’t risk compromising it for any cause.”
“We understand entirely,” Flugel stated, nodding her gratitude. “We wouldn’t impinge on your good nature unless we sincerely needed your aid.”
The Stahldritten highlady turned to her betrothed, a question on her lips. “Would the Feuer Realm permit the Army to search the cliff-faces as well?”
Kohle’s fingers would into hers with a small, reassuring smile. “I will send a nachtreiter to Aurel immediately,” he promised. “I’m sure he’d be willing to help us out, and for the sake of diplomacy.”
Latya nodded, before setting her sights on Flugel. “And the Luft Realm? Would your elder sister be willing to grant us leniency to investigate the forests that border both of our realms?”
The Luftborn was taken aback, and she was once again reminded of how like Heike this new Stahldritten leader was; direct, diplomatic, and strategic, just as her sister before her. Just as her sister had been before she had appointed herself Empress of the Realms.
The Stahlborn’s brow creased in Flugel’s growing silence, until she asked, “Is something the matter?”
Flugel mentally shook herself, focusing. “No, no, nothing’s the matter. It’s just that,” she added, and barked a short, airy laugh, “well, Stahldrittens don’t usually ask for permission.”
Latya’s silver gaze, hospitable and cordial until now, became steel. “I know you don’t have much reason to trust me, or the Stahl Realm, councilmember,” Latya addressed her calmly. “But I am not my sister, and I will never be my sister. Nor do any of my siblings intend to follow in the steps of Heike. And we would appreciate being afforded the civility of doubt, if nothing else.”
“I apologise,” Flugel said sincerely, rising to her feet. Emmerich and Behende followed suit. “I did not mean to offend; we’re all adjusting to this new world. My conduct was unacceptable, and I do request your forgiveness.”
“I hold nothing against you,” Latya responded gently, though her features did not lose their steely sheen. Flugel was beginning to think that that was just her expression. Nevertheless, at her side, Kohle Feuervierte smiled softly, squeezing her hand.
“Will you speak with your sister?” the Feuerborn asked.
“I don’t need to,” Flugel replied with a gracious smile. “The Luftzweiten Family are ambassadors for the Luft Realm; we don’t exercise governance like the other realms. My family acts in authority as representatives of the wishes of all the citizens of the Luft Realm. I don’t need to go to my sister – I can grant you authority now, as a Luftzweiten.”
Latya offered her the salute for peace, and Flugel amiably concurred, offering her gratitude as well.
“We appreciate your aid,” Emmerich assured her as they braced in the foyer, reluctant to step into the growing blizzard beyond. Their horses fretted on the cobblestone tiles, shuffling in the layer of snow that covered the courtyard. “We truly do. And we hope you can rely on our diplomacy as much as we have relied on yours.”
“I look forward to furthering the High Council’s relationship with the Stahl Realm,” Latya returned with a bow of her head, her lashes picking up snowflakes. She lifted her gaze to the pale sky. “This blizzard will be upon us in an hour or so; you’d do best to head down the mountain before it hits.”
Emmerich offered a smile. “We’re not too worried. If need be, we can take shelter at the Klinge household; Hagel has offered us sanctuary there on our journey back to Ether. We will take care of ourselves, sage.”
“A safe ride to you,” Latya farewelled them as they mounted their nachtreiters, bowing their heads into the hoods of their coats as they pointed their steeds beyond the Stahldritten fortress gates, which yawned wide. Latya watched them until the white of the blizzard swallowed them whole.